TV review: The Witness for the Prosecution, BBC One (4 stars)

TV review: The Witness for the Prosecution, BBC One

An addictive and lavish adaptation of Agatha Christie's short story and play

Long gone are the days of Agatha Christie screen adaptations coming chockful of winsome characters, dodgy stereotypes and curious sleuths. After last festive-time's And Then There Were None (which at times looked to be going for the Game of Thrones crowd rather than The Times cryptic crossword buffs) comes The Witness for the Prosecution. This bleaker anti-Marple and non-Poirot approach (there's not a frilly jabot or twirly moustache to be spied anywhere) comes largely down to screenwriter Sarah Phelps who gave last year's tale of a seemingly unsolvable mystery a luscious claustrophobia.

While there was no safety net in that story of a detective on hand to save anyone from its merciless killer, this time around at least we have a capable solicitor in the form of John Mayhew. The downside is that it doesn't look as though he will even last the duration of the trial given his hacking cough and occasional spitting-up of blood. It's not the only appearance of the red stuff in episode one as plenty of it is strewn over the drama's murder victim and gets stuck onto the paws of probably the whitest cat ever to make it onto our small screens.

Alongside Phelps is director Julian Jarrold who splashes an effective browny-red palette over these proceedings, as he did with the first episode of the superlative Red Riding trilogy. And cast-wise, this is one of those to-die-for gatherings. Toby Jones plays the ailing and penniless brief whose homelife has become a tower of sadness; Kim Cattrall is the seductive society dame whose taste in men appears to be designed to shock and appal those around her; Andrea Riseborough once more superbly portrays a brooding melancholy as an Austrian singer and dancer who is made far from welcome in London's theatre-land; and Billy Howle plays the moody WWI survivor who becomes embroiled in what could well be a terrible miscarriage of justice.

Agatha Christie herself was less than enamoured with the ending she plumped for in the original short story, tinkering with it for a later stage incarnation. This perhaps gives Phelps the perfect motive to deliver her own grand finale. Whichever direction it goes in, the second episode is sure to be a lavishly addictive affair.

The Witness for the Prosecution is on BBC One, Mon 26 & Tue 27 Dec, 9pm.


1. Peter Gregory26 Dec 2016, 10:45pm Report

- the "darkness" of the plot was overdone to the extent that, for the last 10 minutes I could barely see anything onscreen; in fact the "theatricality" was way overplayed, overdone.

- the "chorus girl", the accused's partner, was hardly credible when swinging on the moon above the chorus- she was dowdy; her lips and eyes were all wrong- her whole face, demeanor and body language was absolutely not what a glamorous "moonbeam" girl would have been in theatre then.

-we all got that the defence lawyer was a victim of gassing in the war: his constant, overdone constant coughing was hardly necessary- a period reminder too far.

- AgChrist screenplays build up tension and leave us guessing: these attributes are so far completely lacking!

-it's all been mega hyped, so I hope part two makes up for this dismal start; the blurb by Sarah Phelps was alluring and compulsive. The actualité is a dud so far.

Maybe it's an unexploded doodlebug and part II will be wild- I sincerely hope so!

2. emchardy1 .29 Dec 2016, 10:22pm Report

Boring in the extreme

Toby Jones annoying cough just getting on this viewers nerves, and completely irrelevant to the plot.

Seemed to be filmed in darkness most of the time. Again, for what reason?

Not enough of the theatre of the court room.

Mrs Vole singing the same song umpteen times, again for no reason

More actual drama and less peripheral nonsense could have made this an excellent production ,unfortunately i found it the most disappointing TV viewing of the entire Christmas schedule .

Not impressed at all

3. Rebecca Lane31 Dec 2016, 1:16am Report

Was so much graphic sex necessary ? I' prude, but I think Agatha would have turned in her grave to see how her story had been presented. It was cheap and gratuitous. BBC should be ashamed of itself.

4. Zak Byron5 Jan 2017, 9:54am Report

One thing that has surprised me looking at reviews of this TV drama is how glowing the reviews have been. Some of them have even done down Christie's work, describing it as creaky, or full of stereotypes (like in this review). (I have serious doubts if many of them have read anything she has written.)

In the face of this barrage of positivity I begin to doubt whether the reviewers and I actually watched the same programme - or maybe I was unreasonable in my dislike of this particular adaptation. It is only when I look at the comments section that I realise that I am not alone in my views - far from it. In fact, I have seen far LESS positive reviews made by members of the general public who sat down to watch this programme - on the whole they have been scathing.

I remember a time when such glowing reviews were hard won. Professional reviewers were notoriously picky, and would find fault with the tiniest thing. I can conclude that heavily bowdlerised adaptations of an author's work must be ultra fashionable amongst critics at the moment.

There was a time when changes made from page (and stage) to screen were mostly for logistical or budgetary reasons - now adaptors routinely add things that complicate the plot, and can only make the adaptation more expensive to film (e.g. the tropical location added on for the 'climax').

Though billed as an adaptation of Christie's short story rather than her play there were plenty of things which the screenwriter added in - mainly, it seemed to me, to pad out the length: indeed this version was longer than both the 1957 and the 1982 film and TV adaptations of this story. It felt it too ... I would have sworn that this version was 3 hours long not 2. Re-watching those versions after seeing the BBC's new version I worked out what the BBC version was lacking. Suspense. When a particular character said the key line which changed the audience's perspective of everything they had just seen, it sent shivers down my spine in both the 1957 and 1982 versions ... the BBC's version left me cold.

5. Mark Lawrence5 Jan 2017, 11:36pm Report

I know this play very well: the BBC should be ashamed of such a poor effort, Agatha Christie didn't care about US styled, "relationships". Go on BBC do this to a Jane Austen novel, I dare you!!!! Let's see Darcy commit suicide when Elizabeth dumps him for another woman, Oh! go on....

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